Arts & Culture

African-American architect Julian Abele’s drawings tell the story of Duke University

View of East Campus toward Baldwin Auditorium.
View of East Campus toward Baldwin Auditorium. Construction of Duke University, 1924-1932, University Archives, Duke University.

A collection of about 300 architectural renderings, perspectives and blueprints in the Duke University archives chronicles one of the most remarkable stories in North Carolina’s 20th-century design history.

They are the work of Philadelphia’s Julian Abele, who in 1902 became the first African-American to earn an architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Few of these drawings carry his name or signature, but two facts are certain: Abele was the mastermind behind the planning and design of two campuses on Duke’s grounds – and he worked on them in relative anonymity.

Planning the grounds

From 1925 to 1927, he designed the red-brick-and-white-marble East Campus in a Palladian style that’s crowned by Baldwin Auditorium, a domed building modeled after Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia. From 1927 to 1932, he created the stone-faced Collegiate Gothic West Campus, a quadrangle with a cross-axis plan anchored by a chapel and its soaring, 210-foot-tall bell tower.

Both were created when Abele worked in the Philadelphia office of Horace Trumbauer, in collaboration with the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Mass., the best-known landscape architects of their time. “When Trumbauer and the Olmsted Brothers were hired, they had early schemes and plans in an English landscape,” says Mark Hough, Duke’s university landscape architect, describing their proposed plans for lakes and wooded hillsides.

Those plans were eventually abandoned. Funds for both campuses came from James B. Duke, whose father, Washington, had been instrumental in bringing Trinity College to Durham from Randolph County in 1892. In 1924, the younger Duke endowed the college – later to be named after his father and family – with $8 million for the East Campus and $16 million for the West. When James Duke died unexpectedly in 1925, administrators realized the West Campus endowment was not enough, and asked the designers to trim their plans by 40 percent.

“That’s where we got the formal plan we have now,” Hough says of Abele’s design. “My hypothesis is that this was his idea – he was a student of the Beaux Arts. The Olmsted Brothers had a more picturesque vision.”

The drama of Abele’s plan lies in the relationship of the West Campus access road to the height of its chapel. “As you drive around the campus, you get glimpses of the chapel, but not until you get to the Quad do you see the axis,” Hough says.

The story behind the designer

Because Trumbauer’s architecture firm – including Abele – had designed James Duke’s Fifth Avenue residence in New York, it was a favored candidate for the university. Horace Trumbauer held no architecture degree. In fact, he never graduated from high school, learning on-the-job as a draftsman. But he was well-connected, and from 1890 on, his firm was designing Gilded Age mansions in Newport, R.I., as well as public projects like the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

An employee once quoted him as saying: “I hire my brains.” He found one such asset, accompanied by no small amount of talent, at a University of Pennsylvania art show where Abele’s ability with a pencil was evident. “He could draw like crazy,” Hough says.

Once Abele graduated, Trumbauer helped fund a European tour so Abele could see the structures he’d learned about at Penn, get a better sense of their scale and proportion, and learn from European architects. It’s possible that a fluent-in-French Abele also audited classes at the prestigious l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

“He attended but didn’t graduate,” confirms his 90-year-old son, Julian Abele, Jr. “Trumbauer wanted him to go through Europe and see the kind of architecture they did, based on the old Gothic and Renaissance designs.” In 1906, he joined Trumbauer’s firm, and in 1909 was named chief designer.

Jim Crow

During the 1920s and ’30s, Abele was actively engaged in designing the Duke campuses – an African-American working on one of the nation’s great universities during the darkest years of the Jim Crow era. Lynchings were commonplace in the South, voting rights did not exist, and travel from Philadelphia to Durham would have been a difficult, degrading experience, so meetings between Duke, Abele and Trumbauer did not take place in Durham.

“Mary Duke Semans said the meetings with Trumbauer took place in New York,” says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. “Duke is saying: ‘Yeah, I’m fine with working with this man.’ It’s quite amazing for this time.

“Duke was a Republican when Republicans were still somewhat the party of Lincoln and the party of business. In his day, he was a bit of a racial liberal.”

Credit for the designs

In a practice common to architecture firms then, few of Abele’s drawings were credited to the man who created them, but instead to the Trumbauer firm itself. Horace Trumbauer was a rainmaker, out in front socially with clients, and bringing in the work, while talented architects like Abele were creating the designs. “The lines are all Mr. Trumbauer’s,” Abele once said of the firm’s design for Philadelphia’s Free Library. “But the shadows are all mine.”

It was not unusual. “In a modern world, others do much of the design work and are usually unnamed and unknown,” Howard says. “But in this particular case, throw in the fact that he was an African-American when racism was at its most extreme, which makes it all the more important that we recognize that Julian Abele was the designer of those buildings.”

Abele was neither outspoken nor inclined to draw attention to himself. “He didn’t stand out and didn’t make himself known because of his introversion and quiet nature,” says Valerie Gillispie, Duke’s university archivist. Indeed, not until Horace Trumbauer died in 1938 did Abele begin to sign drawings for ongoing development of Duke’s West Campus – including blueprints for Cameron Indoor Stadium. Even then, he was essentially an unknown entity for five decades – well after his death in 1950.

All that changed in the spring of 1986, when Duke students began building a shanty town on the West Campus to protest South African apartheid. “Someone wrote a letter to the school paper that they were a blight on campus – that Duke’s architects would not appreciate the campus marred by shanties,” Gillispie says. “Someone else wrote in to say that: ‘My great uncle was black and designed this campus, and he would appreciate these shanties here.’ 

Et voila! The collective consciousness at the school, all-white until 1961, was suddenly raised. Discussions about Abele were de rigueur. The Duke Black Graduate and Professional Student Association created an annual Julian Abele Awards and Recognition Banquet, then commissioned a portrait of Abele to hang in the foyer of the administration’s Allen Building. In 2015, another portrait was hung in the reading room of the Rubenstein Library. And in 2016 the Quad itself was named after its architect. Today, neither Abele nor his drawings linger in the shadows. “They’re open to the public,” Gillispie says. “Anyone can do research – just register at the library.”

To be sure, Julian Abele’s drawings and perspectives for Duke University offer a telling narrative from a rarely gifted architect. But their most poignant story lines can be found in the blueprints, where segregated spaces, separating black workers from whites, were carefully and ironically articulated by an African-American man.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). Reach him at mike@architectsandartisans.com.

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